Monday, October 20, 2008

The Stacks: Opening Up, by Tristan Taormino

Opening Up
by Tristan Taormino
Cleis Press, 2008. English. 299 pp.

Polyamory is going mainstream -- or so the leaders of the polyamory movement keep telling us. At first glance monogamy seems to be firmly entrenched as the way western society falls in love but one sign of change is the number of books that have been published about poly relationships recently. Opening Up, by sex columnist and porn director Tristan Taormino, is one of the best.

This book isn't only about polyamory (the lifestyle choice of multiple open relationships at the same time). Taormino's ambitious goal is to explore all the alternatives to traditional monogamy, and to do so she relies on far more than her own experience -- she conducted interviews with 126 practitioners of alternative relationship styles. With their experiences to help her she defines six basic types of open relationship (partnered nonmonogamy, swinging, polyamory, solo polyamory, polyfidelity and mono/poly combinations) and proceeds to lay out the pros and cons of each, along with strategies to fight jealousy, weather sudden changes, come out to the people in your lives (or not), raise children and find compersion.

For more than a decade ago a book called The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt (aka Janet Hardy), has been considered the definitive book on polyamory, the last word on the subject, so to speak. My question going into Opening Up was: Can Tristan Taormino find anything fresh that justifies writing her own book?

Taormino's broader approach, her determination to capture nonmonogamy in all its variety and complexity, does the trick. In the past, poly books have mostly focused on partnered nonmonogamy and polyfidelity. Taormino covers those, along with the usual communication skills that polyamorists value so. However, this book blazes some new ground by giving equal treatment to solo polyamory, nonmonogamy for people who temporarily or permanently aren't interested in a primary relationship; and mono/poly combinations, relationships where one partner is monogamous and the other isn't. This last type of relationship is extremely common, yet many people, monogamous and nonmonogamous alike, have difficulty accepting it. The poly partner must be taking advantage of the mono one, right...? (Wrong.)

This book also impressed me with its nuanced approach to the discussion of children in poly relationships. Since nonmonogamous people are not protected by the law, some of Taormino's interview subjects have lived nightmare scenarios, being declared unfit parents because they were out of the closet about their open relationships. In some cases, biological poly parents have even fewer rights than gay adoptive parents. That's an important thing to hear if you're considering this lifestyle, and something other books have been known to gloss over.

Those other poly books were written only from the authors' personal experience. That's where Taormino's research allows her to stand out. Other books have nothing approaching the variety of experience she's presents and that's why Opening Up succeeds so brilliantly.

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